I have visited Gaza several times in the last decade, twice in the past year, before and after the latest war between Hamas and Israel. I think of it as a beautiful spot with beautiful people, but it is also a place that suffers from a double tragedy—a tragedy for Palestinians trapped there and for nearby Israelis who seek security.
Gaza sits on a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. Standing on the beach and looking out on the expansive blue waters of the Sea you can forget that you are in a place that for years has been locked off from the rest of the world, blockaded by sea and surrounded by walls. It was once a thriving commercial center, but now has been hollowed out by isolation and poverty. The recent war left over 2,000 dead, mostly civilians, and more than 100,000 without housing.
According to the World Food Program: “Restrictions by Israeli authorities on freedom of movement, access to natural resources, the right to pursue gainful employment, and on international trade and investment has left 27 percent of households, or 1.3 million Palestinians, unable to meet their basic food and households expenses, with a further 14 percent of households at risk of food insecurity.” (wfp.org, October 22, 2014)
Half of the double tragedy of Gaza is that the desperate situation there destroys lives, livelihoods and even hope. In January of this year, before the most recent war, I accompanied a group of Catholic bishops visiting from Europe, North America and South Africa. Amidst the hopelessness of Gaza, we found hope. There are Church institutions educating, training and providing employment, including the great work of Catholic Relief Services. We were welcomed enthusiastically by proud scouts to the local Catholic parish where we celebrated mass. But when we visited the local Orthodox bishop, he welcomed us to the “prison of Gaza.” In January, the bishops concluded that Gaza was a “man-made disaster.” Returning last month with the Bishops’ Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace, it was worse.
The devastation was widespread and in some places whole neighborhoods were turned to rubble. I saw young boys climbing in the ruins and wondered about their futures. This situation is obviously terrible for the people of Gaza, but it also harms their much more prosperous neighbors–the Israelis. Desperate people do desperate things. As the Pilgrimage bishops said, “Violence always sows seeds of further violence and fear.” This is the second half of the double tragedy of Gaza.
Dr. Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice & Peace.
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy for peace in Palestine and Israel.